Last night I dreamt I was at a writing residency, catching up with a colleague. He asked me how my work was going, and I replied that nothing I wrote was any good, but that I kept writing because I knew it would be someday.
Only as I type this do I realize how strange and peculiar it is to choose a career in something you think you suck at. Why do people, creative types especially, sell themselves short?
The tone of the dream was very matter of fact, devoid of drama, no fishing for compliments: I’m not where I’d like to be in my creative practice; I don’t feel like my work is “there” yet; it doesn’t match up to the high caliber of the work I love to read and want to write. This could be seen as a relief, since it would be daunting to think that my best is behind me. (However, this “my best work is behind me” mentality is another damanging misconception about art and artists, which Elizabeth Gilbert touches on in a TED talk from 2009.)
I can’t deny it; this dream was an honest-to-goodness representation of how I felt, plainly and simply stated. Yet I awoke knowing that my writing isn’t actually bad. It just isn’t where I’d like it to be, which is at the level of the authors I read and love—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cheryl Strayed, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, and (currently reading and enjoying) Bruno Schulz.
But I am not these people and they are not me. They have at least a decade on me. Collectively, decades and decades. It’s unrealistic and disheartening to think I should be a decade ahead of where I am right now. Not savoring the stepping stones on the path doesn’t serve me, or anyone else. Accepting and appreciating where we’re at does, but that’s easier said than done.
My generation, this modern-day society, is so accustomed to instant gratification—posting a blog, status update, or photo and watching the likes and hearts crawl in, each one mildly, momentarily, and superficially satisfying—that we make no time for 10,000 hours. No time for rewrites. We want accolades and gold medals and we want them now. And it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and under-accomplished when we’re constantly bombarded with perfectly curated lives that leave out the dirty, messy, and gritty, the bang-your-head-against-the-wall writing sessions.
This morning, as I journaled about the dream, musing on external gratification and awards, I felt my writing get super preachy. I went from writing morning pages for myself, to thinking it could be a good a blog post, to wanting to pitch it as an article for publication that would make me filthy rich and fabulously famous. It was practically involuntary; a slow, quiet alteration from my original intention of writing for writing’s sake, toward writing for the sake of others. I wrote, “see, that’s exactly it. There I go again: striving, struggling, seeking instant and external gratification.”
In the dream, my colleague reacted to what I said with an unsurprised shrug and a slow nod of the head, which I took to mean: we all have those days.